Thursday, September 22, 2011

Thoughts about "Transferring Your Ph.D. Chemist Skills to a Nontraditional Career"

I am a Ph.D. chemist and have been in a nontraditional career for 5 years. I was impressed by Dr. Lisa Balbes' article "Transferring Your Ph.D. Chemist Skills to a Nontraditional Career, which got me thinking about all the questions I had received from friends and colleagues since embarking on my career path.

What do Ph.D. chemists do in nontraditional careers?
As Dr. Balbes points out in her article there are a great number of careers available. There is also an excellent blog that focuses on this called The Road Less Traveled--coincidentally also the title of the upcoming ACS Webinar focused on nontraditional careers for chemists. You often hear about Ph.D. chemists finding jobs in patent law, science writing and policy. What makes this blog special is that it gives examples for a cascade of nontraditional careers where a true chemist can find their passion, including as a chef, regulatory affairs officer, food scientist, forensic scientist, quality inspector, etc.

Why did you bother getting a Ph.D. in chemistry if you are not "doing" chemistry?
Aside from having a strong urge to punch the friend that asked me this question in the face (just an urge), I'd have to say, I bothered because I loved science and problem solving. 'Why the chip?' you say. Because there is a common misconception that Ph.D. chemists seek alternative careers because there are so few faculty positions or because they hated the lab. For most of the many Ph.D. chemists in nontraditional careers I have met, the truth is that they simply found a way to do what they loved, utilizing the same analytical skills they learned as a grad student or postdoc. They were not in a nontraditional field because they were running away from the lab or a dismal sub-sector of the job market. As the article points out, it's about knowing your transferable skills and finding what you are most passionate about. For those that are interested in pursuing a nontraditional career I suggest checking out the CENtral Science blog called Just Another Electron Pusher, where Christine Herman shares with heart and candor what it's like to make the transition from a bench chemist to nontraditional career professional. There is also an interesting Science Careers article Careers in Chemistry: Constantly Evolving Choices which focuses on specific Ph.D. scientists (including Lisa Balbes) and shows how leaving the lab or the classroom behind doesn't have to mean leaving chemistry behind.

Can you go back and forth between traditional and nontraditional careers?
In my opinion it is best to know who you are, decide what you want, and go for it, whether that be in the classroom, at the bench, or one of the many nontraditional options. Getting to the core of what it is you like to do and what you are best at doing is one of the reasons the self-evaluation advised by Lisa Balbes is so crucial. In the vigorous discussion inspired by Derek Lowe's blog post If You're Not a Chemist - What Next?, one of the commentators urges caution, saying that if you try to go back and forth you'll end up competing against others with a much more focused career path. That said, there are many examples of successful chemists with varied tracks through traditional and nontraditional areas. The key seems to be the deliberation with which they translated the lessons learned in one field to their next endeavor.

Where can I find information about nontraditional careers?
When I was a graduate student there were two main fields you were encouraged to pursue, teaching and research. Faculty should be better educated about job opportunities for their students and postdocs, but it is also up to us to take the responsibility in finding mentors and networking opportunities. That doesn't mean (as I learned the hard way) walking up to someone and asking what jobs are available. That means, as we are all used to doing,...going to the stacks and doing the research...connecting with ACS Career Consultant (you can choose one based on what field you are most interested in), reading material (i.e., Nontraditional Careers for Chemists) reading job descriptions, working on our resumes, and networking, networking, networking. Additionally, I think Lisa Balbes' website provides an exceptional resource for those looking into nontraditional careers for chemists. I myself am inspired by the article to probe this material further as I continue to evaluate and work on my own career trajectory.

If anyone has any additional, thoughts, advice, questions, or comments about the article by Lisa Balbes please post.

This blogger is a Ph.D. chemist in a nontraditional field. These views do not necessarily reflect that of ACS or the ACS Graduate & Postdoctoral Scholars Bulletin.


IH122 said...

While I agree with the bulk of what this blogger is trying to say, some of the comments may be a little short sighted and too optimistic. Some people do leave the lab because they hate it. Most people do not get the luxury of doing a job simply because they love it - we have families to support, bills to pay and so on. Sometimes the best we can hope for is finding something that we are compatible with and do not hate. I saw an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that came out recently that may be of interest for those that would like to leave the bench...called "Getting Away from the Bench"

CYK2012 said...

I attended the "Road Less Traveled" ACS webinar on alternative careers for chemists. I thought it gave some excellent advice. It is now available for viewing at